Of Catastrophe, Survival and Triumph: How Leadership Opportunities Activate Teacher Potential

February 28, 2024

By: Pinky Grace Francisco

October 3, 2023, is a pivotal milestone in my teaching journey. I was recognized as one of the 2024 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year Finalists, representing the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Area (KKPCA). 

This accolade underscores the dedication and passion I bring to education and is a triumph for all those who played a vital role in honing me into who I am today.  This honor also serves as a testament to the notion that seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome: an immigrant can flourish in new environments, economic adversity does not have to be a barrier to success, and longevity in service is not the sole measure of merit. Accomplishments, capability, and heart matter most. This is also a validation that a teacher’s labors and sacrifices are not in vain, that if gone unrewarded, the divine will bestow infinite blessings as a form of recognition for the unwavering commitment.

I vividly recall my humble beginnings as a teacher in Hawaii, reflecting on the evolution that has shaped me into the transformational leader I am today. Allow me to glimpse the roller coaster ride of my transformational odyssey.

EMERGING FROM A TRIAL BY FIRE: Teaching in a small K-12 school presented a myriad of challenges—juggling multifaceted roles, handling multiple subject matter fields with no additional preparation period, facing constraints in resources, equipment, facilities, and support, and grappling with the difficulties of vertical alignment because only one teacher is teaching an academic level and content area.

HOW I SURVIVED: In response to these challenges, I cultivated an intrinsic drive and momentum to grow as a teacher-learner continually. I was an avid participant in the Peer-to-Peer Power Sessions organized by the HIDOE Leadership Institute in 2021. I derived valuable insights that I promptly applied within my unique context, fortifying my teaching pedagogy and classroom management skills.

I worked hard to master my teaching craft by joining WIDA self-paced workshops, and by enrolling in Hawaii PDE3 courses, particularly those offered by Hawaii State Teacher Association, where I was able to enrich my repertoire of teaching approaches, strategies, methods, techniques, and tools, empowering me to navigate the challenges of teaching in a resource-constrained environment and ensuring a worthwhile educational experience for my students.

FORGING THE PATH TO ADVOCACY: Having students who are newcomers to the United States, often tagged as “no English,” has been my focus. These students were initially placed in mostly self-contained classes, with EL peers who demonstrated higher language proficiency and some exit ELs who should already be in general education classrooms. Within the high school setting, ELs were consistently placed with one EL teacher teaching all the content areas. In my ELA classes, accommodating 20 ELs with diverse academic and linguistic abilities proved challenging, compounded by the detrimental effects of limited classroom space.  The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated matters as two additional non-English proficient newcomers lacked computer skills, which hindered their participation in synchronous classes and asynchronous work. Engaging in conversations with EL parents and families sheds light on their fears of contacting the school due to language barriers.

ADVOCACY PURSUIT: In response, I proposed to my administration a solution to bring students physically to school by coordinating parent drop-off and pick-up. Recognizing the broader need, I had a series of meetings with my administration, which allowed me to build the school’s English Learner Program and work with our complex area EL Resource Teachers and the registrar for a student-centered scheduling process and course projections. These initiatives have yielded tangible outcomes like an increase in WIDA ACCESS scores, ELs earning early college credits, EL paid internship participation rate, an increase in exit ELs, Seal of Biliteracy awardees, and an increase in ELs joining and winning competitions, both academic and sports. Moreover, there was a significant increase in parent/family involvement, the creation of additional English Learner positions, and the appointment of a community liaison, fostering connections between the school and the community.

  • LEADERSHIP TRACK. I struggled to support ELs in general education classrooms because of the prevailing notion that language development falls solely under the purview of EL teachers. I also encountered colleagues who were struggling emotionally because of personal and professional issues, wherein my capacity to assist was limited.

HOW I ADDRESSED THE ISSUES: To tackle the issues, I immersed myself in EL-related PLCs like the Beginning Teachers Summer Academy organized by the Hawaii Teacher Induction Center Mentoring and the KKPCA English Learner Leads PLC. These platforms enabled me to network with educators statewide, equipping me with ready-to-implement EL strategies.

Furthering my commitment to leadership, I joined the National Education Association’s Early Leadership Institute Fellowship pilot in Hawaii, where we created a Leadership, Engagement, and Action Project (LEAP) presentation geared towards teacher recruitment, support, and retention.

To foster a shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset among educators, I joined the pilot cadre of teachers in 2021, where we were trained by the National Education Association(NEA) on Implicit Bias, Microaggressions, and Stereotypes under Hawaii State Teachers Association: CARES (Culture, Advocacy, Respect, Equity and Support). The endeavor resulted in an ongoing delivery of professional development across Hawaii and the creation of a  Course—Countering Implicit Bias, Microaggressions and Stereotypes in Hawaii, now offered in PDE3 for three credits towards teacher reclassification. This project allows me to extend my impact beyond my school to empower teachers across Hawaii to introspect, reflect, and counter their personal biases, fostering inclusivity and unity amidst diversity.

Additionally, I am a part of the Hawaii State Teacher Fellows 2022-2024 cohort, where I learned a lot of things about family and community engagement, collaborative problem-solving with the HIDOE Superintendent and Board of Education nd exploring aspects of advocacy, legislation, professional writing, partnership, networking, pursuing a change effort and becoming a genuine teacher-leader who actively contributes to the advancement of Hawaii’s public educational system.

Currently, I fulfill the roles of EL Coordinator and EL Coach, acting as a vital link between English learners and their families and the schooling community. In this capacity, I also serve as a liaison that brings in valuable opportunities that students can take advantage of, like Seal of Biliteracy, early college credit opportunities, and scholarships. Moreover, I have now allowed coaching and mentoring teachers not just about Sheltered Instruction but also about strengthening Tier 1 instruction to foster academic gains and excellence.

I have an exceptionally supportive principal who never said no to my endeavors that I believed would benefit the students and the school I serve. The trials I faced, akin to a trial by fire, were a blessing in disguise. Navigating through them has endowed me with resilience that has become the cornerstone of my current strength, grit, and determination.

Furthermore, I am deeply appreciative that all of these educational and leadership opportunities have opened their doors for me and profoundly contributed to my personal and professional development. These platforms undeniably unleashed the hoarded potentials I didn’t even know I had—from a mediocre to an extraordinaire. Looking ahead, I ardently hope that these opportunities will remain and similar pathways will continue to unfold, offering choices for fellow educators who, like myself, harbor an intense hunger for lifelong learning.

Pinky Grace Francisco, NBCT

Pinky Grace C. Francisco is the 2024 Kau-Keaau-Pahoa Complex Teacher of the Year, an NBCT candidate, a Hawaii State Teacher Fellow, NEA/HSTA Early Leadership Fellow, HSTA CARES(Culture, Advocacy, Respect, Equity and Support) pilot cadre, HSTA EL Contract Committee member, a mentor, a PDE3 instructor, EL Coordinator and Academic Coach at Kau High and Pahala Elementary School on the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an advocate for equity, inclusivity, empowerment and social justice and is fascinated by the power of diversity, unique individual capacity and with celebrating small victories.